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October 24, 2013 / Katie

A Night at Mission Chinese

Mission Chinese's neon green storefrontAn abridged version of this article originally appeared in Open City Magazine in March 2013.

There’s no other way to say it. Mission Chinese is a tease. It lures you in with the promise of Chinese takeout favorites, free beer, and a piece of the foodie hipster scene. But just like at The Roxbury, a night at Mission Chinese should come with a disclaimer: The wait is long. The beer is weak. The food is, well, interesting. Results may vary.

Chef célèbre of the moment, Danny Bowien, opened the latest outpost of Mission Chinese–first conceived as a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco–on the Lower East Side last spring. Since then the joint has been mobbed nightly by droves of foodies, hipsters, and everyone in between looking to shock their tastebuds with a mouthful of mind-altering Sichuan pepper.

THE HYPE

The chatter swirling around Mission Chinese has reached a fever pitch in recent months, with exalted reviews from The New Yorker and New York Magazine, along with nods from culinary heavyweights Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain. New York Times food critic, Pete Wells, wrote: “Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it. He grabs hold of tradition and runs at it with abandon, hitting the accents hard, going heavy on the funk and causing all kinds of delicious havoc.”

What is more compelling, though, is the unusual bill of fare at Mission Chinese and how it is quietly redefining American Chinese cuisine as we know it. The menu boasts innovative dishes like Chongqing chicken wings (think typical fried chicken wings, except kicked up with red chili peppers), beer brined Sichuan pickles, and kung pao pastrami (blocky chunks of pastrami stir-fried with peanuts, green onions, and you guessed it, more chili peppers). Bowien, who likes to refer to their food as “weird Chinese,” has done something simple yet brilliant: he’s mixed and matched classic dishes from both American and Chinese cuisines, infused them with authentic flavors and surprising ingredients, and served it all up with an irreverent panache.

Fittingly, Bowien is not Chinese. He is ethnically Korean but grew up in Oklahoma with his adoptive parents. After several gigs at high end restaurants in San Francisco, Bowien decided to turn to the food he’s always savored on his days off: Chinese comfort food.

THE WAIT

On an evening in late August, a few friends and I finally decided to take the plunge, reservations be damned (it’s nearly impossible to book in advance at Mission Chinese and parties are limited to 6 people max). The restaurant is located in a neighborhood that has historically been inhabited by working-class immigrants, hence the many tenement buildings, and is known most notably for having been a center of Jewish culture. To the west, the LES if flanked by an ever-sprawling Chinatown.

hipsters waiting for their number to be called

As I walked down Orchard, I was drawn to the hazy green neon that is Mission Chinese. It reminded me of the opium-hued glow of the poster for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The street, like much of the LES in recent years, has reinvented itself as if overnight. Gone are the traditional Jewish-owned businesses selling leather jackets, discount luggage, and women’s brassieres. The old storefronts have been replaced by wifi cafes, vegan bakeries, old-timey barbershops, and vintage boutiques for the hip set.

Still a half block away, I could already see the line of eager patrons milling about outside. Customers first step into a basement storefront set several feet back from the street. Two kids in ratty jeans and ironic t-shirts manned the hostess counter (pieces of ply-wood nailed together, bare bones), one clutching the clipboard that would determine our fates for the night. The wait? Two hours. Anything less than that would be nothing short of a miracle. It was 7:30 pm on a Thursday. We steeled ourselves against the night’s encroaching hunger.

As I stood in the crowded entryway, I recalled the joint’s previous incarnations that I had once dined at: Rhong-Tiam, a Thai taco restaurant, and before that Bia Garden, a Vietnamese dive with a covered garden where I remember throwing back a number of Beerlaos with friends. Will Mission Chinese be the tenant to stick around and make it work?

The place is cursed with an awkward floor plan, but Bowien has managed to milk it to his advantage. Beyond the takeout counter stretches a long narrow hallway abbreviated by a black curtain serving as a makeshift door. Waiters and busboys rush in and out and the lucky customers who’s table has finally been called disappear behind its velvety folds. Two kegs sit on the floor where patrons can fill up on complimentary beer.

We left our name on the waiting list and, to kill time, walked around the LES aimlessly, ogling the faux-industrial Laboratorio di Gelato and stopping in at Euro Asia Foods, a cute little import foods shop with Milo hot chocolate mix and rolls of digestives. After attempting to order chicken and biscuits at a hole-in-the-wall down near Canal and realizing that the employee of exactly one there would take nearly as long to fix our dinner as the 2-hour wait, we headed back to Mission Chinese with an ironclad determination in our eyes. Kung pao pastrami, baby, or bust.

BACK TO THE WAITING GAME

In our absence, the throngs of eager diners waiting to get in had only multiplied. We stood in a line against the cramped hallway, sipping watery beer out of mini red cups.

My friend Chen Jia, who was visiting from L.A. and is coincidentally my Chinese language partner from years ago, turned to me and said in her characteristically low voice, “So, this is like a Chinese restaurant for white people?”

I nearly choked on my beer. “Hah. I guess you’re right.”

Chen Jia had a point. The hostess, servers, line cooks, even the chef himself–none of them were Chinese. What kind of Chinese restaurant is run by guilo? And what is “Americanized Oriental food” anyway? Do these people have any clue of what they’re about to eat? Does it matter?

I looked around the restaurant foyer and noticed the wide range of people waiting. There were the requisite thirtysomething hipsters, but there were also the preppy girls wearing Lilly Pulitzer halter dresses, AZN young professionals, and punks with body piercings and neon dye-jobs. Something had brought all of us there. Could it be the birth of post-modern Chinese food?

The room was abuzz with the kind of jittery anticipation one would expect to see in the VIP line backstage at a Grizzly Bear concert. We prattled on and retold stories to entertain ourselves, hoping that laughter might salve our grumbling stomachs.

On the wall opposite us was an oblong window, sealed with glass, that peered into the small kitchen. Two line cooks, both women, were furiously stir-frying food in industrial-sized woks. I had that same feeling as a kid, watching my family’s Ford Aerostar go through the car wash, my face pushed up against the glass, captivated by the mechanical ballet of soap and water unfolding before my eyes. Bright flames erupted as the woks were swung rhythmically over the stovetop, each flick of the wrist flinging food into the air only to be caught again by the pit of the glistening woks.

wok on fire through the car wash window

We watched eagerly as one cook divided her sizzling bounty into separate dishes. I have to admit, the car wash window is an ingenious marketing tactic. We stood there, tantalized, not only by the food itself, but also by the cooks’ seamless choreography. The line, no matter how long, could not be abandoned now that we had tasted blood–we would see that one of those sizzling dishes made it into our bellies.

By the time the two hour mark rolled around, we were practically delirious with hunger, yet still we waited. Bowien himself emerged from the kitchen in his signature short-shorts with two plates of Chongqing chicken wings, one of which we were grateful to receive. The chicken was piping hot and spicy as hell, but that didn’t stop us from devouring the plate greedily. Of course, we paid for our gluttony with burning tongues and teary eyes.

And just when we thought we’d never get in, our number was called. The hostess parted the curtains and lead us back into the rose-hued dining room. We had made it to the promised land at last.

THE PROMISED LAND

The menu at Mission Chinese is unlike any menu you’ve ever seen at a Chinese restaurant. The offerings read like a mashup of quintessential Chinese dishes (mapo tofu, Mongolian long beans, Westlake rice porridge) and down-home American flavors (thrice-cooked bacon, BBQ pigtails). Bowien has married the most distinctive tastes of these two cuisines, and the result far transcends the fraught category of “Asian fusion.”

The food descended on our table hot and fast. The first dish, broccoli beef brisket, was tender and perfectly seasoned (it’s hard to go wrong with brisket), and the substitution of Chinese broccoli helped revive this old favorite. My first bite of the stir-fried pork jowl and radishes revealed a crisp and clean flavor; the dish was savory yet still light, and entirely enjoyable. But the thrice-cooked bacon and kung pao pastrami, despite the allure of their names, became nearly inedible after a few forkfuls. In the thrice-cooked bacon dish, the disks of niangao (chewy pieces of rice cake that are usually tasteless and bland) nestled between chunks of bacon were drowning in chili sauce and peppercorns.

The effect was a strange tingling-sensation in the mouth and a burning hotness that water alone cannot quench. I remembered then why I have never really liked Sichuanese cuisine. It’s keystone seasoning, málà, is a heady mix of Sichuan peppercorn and dried chili peppers; the former leaves a numbing sensation when chewed, while the latter is crazy spicy. It’s no wonder that the Chinese characters for mala (麻辣) translate literally to mean “numbing spicy.” These flavors are an acquired taste to be sure. Many Chinese stay away from spicy dishes like these while Sichuan locals consume mala sauce as if it were water. The thing is, mala dishes are usually tolerable even if you’re not a fan of the seasoning. At Mission Chinese, the peppercorn-chili to food ratio is off the richter. Like stepping into an elevator with a woman doused in flowery perfume, the place reeks of mala.

WHAT IS HIP?

Chinese food is hip for the first time since chop suey’s vogue days in the 1920s. Even Adam Platt says so. In a recent issue of New York Magazine, Platt predicted that “Asian Hipster Cuisine” will be one of the top ten food trends of 2013. But Asian food has been on the rise for years now. What makes Mission Chinese so special?

the rose-tinted dining room

Homegrown Chinatown shops like Vanessa’s Dumplings and Xi’an Famous Foods have gained traction with New York foodies, and one could consider Momofuku and Fatty Crab founding institutions of the Asian hipster movement. All of these establishments lack, however, the ironic self-awareness of Mission Chinese. It pretends to be nothing. A less forgiving reviewer might call it a dump, with its tacky takeout menu and backlit food panels. While most dishes are reasonably priced, they’re still higher than the bargain-basement-prices Chinatown locals are used to. Small plates range from $4-$10, while main dishes are generally $12-$15.

Like many things in life, you do Mission Chinese for the experience, to be able to add another notch to your belt. And much of the hype surrounding the restaurant stems from the sheer novelty of the enterprise. The menu delights because it subverts our Panda Express-ingrained expectations. The flavors are heavy-handed and, to diners who’ve never eaten Sichuanese fare before, refreshingly original. For some, though, this is simply a case of mistaking the shock of the new for the authentic.

But Mission Chinese does not strive to be authentic, only to be “weird.” It doesn’t care if you’re a hipster or a prep, you still have to wait. It don’t give a shit if you can’t take spicy or you hate the strange tingle of peppercorn, cuz Mission Chinese is really pretty badass. And every day, without fail, the diners will show up, rain or shine, ready to wait.

Danny Bowien for UniqloTHE MORNING AFTER

Several days post Mission Chinese, Chen Jia and I made the obligatory “out-of-town girlfriend” shopping trip down Fifth Avenue. At Uniqlo we grabbed a Fall lookbook on the way out. As if on cue, Chen Jia flipped to a page with Bowien wearing a chartreuse puffer jacket and a silver cap, a mock-quizzical expression on his face. I could see the light bulb flicker on in her eyes.

“Ah, I see. He’s famous!”

And that settled it.

Will I be returning to Mission Chinese any time soon? I don’t think I have the mental stamina to make it through another two-hour wait, but I may hit them up for delivery. Pickled lotus root and cumin lamb breast still have their appeal.

As for the restaurant’s cultural impact, Anthony Bourdain may have said it best: “Let us hope that Mission Street Food’s uniquely American success story points the way to a brighter—and delightfully stranger—future.” It’s a brave new world out there for Chinese food in America. I look forward to savoring the strange.

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